Parallels Desktop 8: A New Version for Two New Operating Systems

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Back in 2006, when Parallels Desktop first used virtualization technology to let you run Windows programs nearly seamlessly within OS X, I thought it might be a stopgap measure. Macs were getting more popular, and I assumed the era would arrive when they’d be entirely self-sufficient.

Nope. Six years later, it can still make sense to use Windows software on a Mac. (Maybe the single best example: Office for Windows is still a much better, more powerful office suite than the Mac package that shares its name.) And Parallels is still making the process smoother, faster and more useful.

The big news in Parallels 8, which the company announced today, is support for new operating systems — Apple‘s OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and Microsoft’s Windows 8 — along with the ability to use the new 15″ MacBook Pro’s Retina display. (Given that there aren’t any PC notebooks with resolutions as high as the Retina MacBook Pro yet, Windows may look better in Parallels than it does on its own on garden-variety Windows laptops.)

You’d expect Parallels to support new Apple and Microsoft operating systems as they come along, and some of the things the new version does are useful in obvious ways. For instance, it lets you use Mountain Lion’s new dictation feature to speak text into Windows programs as well as OS X ones. But Windows 8, with the all-new interface formerly known as Metro, is such a departure from Windows 7 that it has a major impact on how Parallels does its integration.

In a way, melding the interface now known as Modern UI with OS X is less of a challenge than smooshing together Windows desktop programs with OS X: Since Modern UI runs only in full-screen mode, Parallels doesn’t have to come up with anything like Coherence, the remarkable mode that lets Windows desktop apps and Mac apps run alongside each other in their own windows. (Coherence is still there for desktop programs, which Parallels runs the same way it always did.)

For Modern UI apps, Parallels lets you use Windows 8’s full-screen Start interface, but it also allows you to launch them from OS X’s Launchpad, the closest counterpart the Mac has to the Start screen. Parallels also supports new Windows 8 gestures such as dragging your finger in from the right side of the screen to access system settings and other features.

Parallels’ primary selling point remains the way it lets you run killer Windows apps on a Mac when there aren’t any ideal OS X counterparts. The thing about Windows 8 is that there aren’t any killer apps yet — especially when you run the operating system on a conventional laptop like a Mac rather than on a tablet. So I’m curious to see whether many folks will use Parallels to put new Modern UI software on their Macs. But for all those existing Windows programs, it still looks great.

As before, Parallels Desktop 8 lets you run virtual copies of a bevy of operating systems, including other versions of Windows, OS X itself, various flavors of Linux and Google’s Chrome OS. Existing customers can upgrade starting today for $49.99. New ones will be able to buy the full version for $79.99 starting September 4. There’s also a $99.99 Switch to Mac edition, with training videos and a USB transfer cable that helps you move stuff from a PC onto a Mac.